by Jennifer L. Daunders – Staff Writer, The Democrat
KITTERY, Maine – A longtime Portsmouth Naval Shipyard employee who suffers from acute respiratory problems believes mold growing in the basement of her workplace is responsible for her illness.
Janet Stevens is asking why the government is taking so long to clean up the various types of mold growing in the basement of the shipyard’s main administrative building, Building 86.
The mold problem in Building 86’s basement was identified in a report by an independent consultant last September. The report recommended prompt removal of the mold and remediation of the areas affected. According to shipyard officials, the contract for the remediation will be awarded in August.
The shipyard did not state when remediation work would begin.
“I began to have hives, breathing problems and could start to smell the mold. In the last nine months, I have become severely allergic to mold. I wear a 3M mask all the time; as I go outside the mold from the ground overwhelms me into asthma attacks. I cannot sit next to plants or it is like having instant pneumonia. I had to buy a new car. I have been on and off Prednisone and am on daily inhalers. I live mainly in one room a lot at a friend’s with a HEPA filter air cleaner,” Stevens said.
Shipyard Public Affairs Officer Debbie White said the priority of the remediation “was accelerated when an employee raised a medical concern regarding acute sensitivity to mold. The employee was relocated to another building.”
The air quality report, which stems from an investigation performed by the Westbrook firm Northeast Test Consultants in 2001 at the request of the shipyard, cites several types of mold being present in the basement of Building 86.
The types of mold identified “have been documented as agents of respiratory related illness,” according to the report. Those identified included Aspergillus versicolor, Aspergillus niger, Aspergillus ochraceus and Stachybotrys chartarum, also known referred to as S.C.
According to the report, the presence of fungi such as S.C. “should be considered unacceptable.”
“I am appalled that the condition of this basement was realized a year ago and nothing was done. I am a single mother who has to go to work and get sick and keep using leave without pay for all my doctor’s appointments,” Stevens said.
Stevens said she got the Sept. 2001 report about a month ago through a request to her representative.
“It listed all the molds I am allergic to, as well as stating that there were active biological species of the very toxic mold Stachybotrys chartarum …. It also stated anyone near the affected area should be told if needed for seeking medical help. Nothing was done,” she said.
White said the mold in the basement of Building 86 is in an area primarily used for storage.
Stevens said for the past three years her workspace has been on the first floor of Building 86. She described holes in the floor for wiring as well as an open entrance and freight elevator between her office and the basement level.
When Northeast Test Consultants performed its study in 2001, White said, “mold growth was found in the basement within moisture-damaged building materials. No physical evidence of mold growth was found on the first floor,” she noted.
Because mold is associated with the presence of moisture, White said the shipyard is focusing on the source of the moisture and the elimination of the mold.
“This will be addressed in two phases of the project. The first phase will be the cleaning and remediation of the mold; this contract will be awarded in August 2002. The second phase will address the moisture,” White noted.
Until the remediation is complete, White said that as a precautionary measure, access to the basement of the building is being limited and those work areas that are affected are being relocated.
“Additional testing in the basement was initiated in the May 2002 time frame. A major remediation project has been prepared to accomplish removal of mold sources within the basement,” White said.
Although there is not a set of regulations, rules or even industry guidelines that clearly define mold remediation procedures, the Environmental Protection Agency and the New York City Department of Health have both posted information on mold remediation in commercial buildings.
The Center for Disease Control also advises that when “Stachybotrys chartarum (Stachybotrys atra) or other molds are found in a building, prudent practice recommends that they be removed. Use the simplest and most expedient method that properly and safely removes mold.”
“We will be following published guidelines to address the problem,” White said.
In the meantime, the shipyard’s policy to address an employee’s health concerns as related to the work environment is to deal with medical restrictions and make accommodations such as relocation to a different workplace.
“An employee would first identify a work place concern to their supervisor. The supervisor would request a medical evaluation and a workplace assessment by our Safety and Health Office,” White explained.
According to Stevens, however, her allergies to mold are now so acute that even the new location is not enough to protect her.
“I left work last week in an ambulance, as the building they moved me to had been closed up over the holiday and the mold from water leaks in the ceiling didn’t have a chance to air out and I had a bad asthma attack,” she said.
Worker’s compensation and the question of causes
Stevens is finding little relief in the federal workman’s compensation act, which requires more proof than the medical community provides linking her illness to mold.
Stevens, a 38-year-old single mother from York, decided to bring her story to the press after receiving notification from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment Standards Administration of limited worker’s compensation benefits.
Unfortunately for Stevens and other sufferers of severe allergies exacerbated by mold, there are presently no federal guidelines as to how much mold is too much mold. There is also a lack of conclusive evidence as to which health concerns are directly caused by mold exposure.
Meanwhile, the Department of Labor places upon employees “the burden of establishing by the weight of reliable, probative, and substantial medical evidence, a firm diagnosis of his or her condition and that the condition is causally related to factors of the federal employment,” as stated in a letter to Stevens from Claims Examiner Jerry D. Smith.
Stevens said there is no doubt in her mind that her exposure to the mold in the basement of Building 86 has caused her current condition. She noted she had to return to work in Building 86 when she ran out of paid leave.
“Is the government hiding? Are they denying my claim because they do not want to be responsible? Do I keep going to work and leave in an ambulance? I want people to be aware that this does happen. … I never had asthma in my life before so this is not a preexisting condition.” she said.
In the letter notifying Stevens her benefits would be limited to medical expenses, Smith wrote that medical evidence indicates many of her ailments were not caused by her employment.
“The mere fact that a condition manifests itself or is worsened during a period of employment does not raise an inference of causal relationship between the two,” Smith wrote.
The Center for Disease Control and other federal and state agencies advise all mold to be removed, but do not present definitive information on potential health risk. According to information released by the New York City Department of Health, mold found in buildings usually does not cause illness among healthy individuals.
“However, too much exposure to mold may cause or worsen conditions such as asthma, hay fever, or other allergies. The most common symptoms of overexposure are cough, congestion, runny nose, eye irritation and the aggravation of asthma,” the report states.
In a letter detailing Stevens’ specific symptoms, Dr. C. Christopher Smith of Rochester, N.H., described seeing her for the first time on Sept. 27, 2001, for a variety of sinus symptoms. He noted Stevens had a history of allergies for 15 years.
“I have worked at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard for 15 years. For eight of those years I worked in a flooding, moldy basement. I left then because of allergy problems but never went any further with testing as I got better,” Stevens explained.
In the months since that first visit, the letter states, Stevens’ asthma symptoms worsened and she was given a regimen including a face mask to help filter mold spores and steroids to improve her breathing.
“On 5/23/02, the patient was tested for several molds and fungals to indeed see if this was most of the problem,” the physician wrote in his letter. She was subsequently told to avoid specific molds and fungal spores, including Aspergillus – one of the types cited in the consultants’ review of Building 86.
As Stevens put it, “he felt this long term exposure to mold is what may have put me in this highly sensitive allergic state. … The government wants him to say [it is] 100 percent caused but no doctor can do that.”
According to the Center for Disease Control, “Stachybotrys chartarum (Stachybotrys atra) and other molds may cause health symptoms that are nonspecific. At present there is no test that proves an association between Stachybotrys chartarum (Stachybotrys atra) and particular health symptoms. Individuals with persistent symptoms should see their physician.”
In the past weeks, Stevens has written letters to many state and federal legislators seeking assistance with her worker’s compensation claim.
“I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. I just want something to be done about this,” Stevens said. “This has left me no life, relationships, or time with my daughter as I am sick a lot. She misses her ‘old mom.’ … I cannot even sit outside on a good day without my mask on. Mold can make people sick.”